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Arts & Entertainment

The Muppets, Yoda and a little Hitler marionette: The Contemporary Jewish Museum has it all

Nightclub marionettes, c. 1940. | Jason Madella, Courtesy Frank Oznowicz, Jenny Oznowicz, and Ronald Oznowicz.

How did a figurine of Hitler end up on display at SF’s Contemporary Jewish Museum, and what does it have to do with Fozzie Bear, Miss Piggy, the Star Wars universe and the CJM’s new exhibit, The Jim Henson Exhibition: Imagination Unlimited?

The answer can be found in Oz is for Oznowicz: A Puppet Family's History, which opened this week at the museum. It involves a family of puppeteers fleeing Nazi-occupied Belgium and has some surprising ties to the Muppets and Yoda—that diminutive Jedi with a quaint syntax, a quasi-Zen philosophy and strangely expressive ears. 

At the beginning of World War II, Dutch marionettist Isidore Oznowicz and his Belgian wife Frances were living in Antwerp. A marionette they’d made of Adolf Hitler was one of their puppets. (Isidore was Jewish, so whatever they were using the doll for, it wasn’t flattering to Der Führer.) When the Nazis unleashed their bombs on Antwerp in May 1940, the couple buried the puppet in their yard and fled. In 1944, they had a son named Frank, born in England. Isidore, known as Mike, became a soldier. 
After the war, the Oznowiczes came to California, founding the SF Bay Area Puppeteers Guild in the early 1950s. For years, Frances and Mike gave live performances at America’s oldest surviving puppet theater, Children’s Fairyland in Oakland. Their son, Frank, joined in on the act while he attended school. Later on, Frank met Jim Henson, who would eventually become the mastermind of the Muppets and later the director of the David Bowie-starring 1986 film Labyrinthwhich screens at the museum on Sunday, with Henson star Karen Prell on hand.

Hitler marionette and assorted marionette heads, c. 1940. | Jason Madella / Courtesy Frank Oznowicz, Jenny Oznowicz, and Ronald Oznowicz

Frank and Henson began working together. For professional reasons, Oznowicz shortened his last name to one syllable. Star Wars superfans may recognize the name Frank Oz.

Heidi Rabben, the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s senior curator, worked with the Queens-based Museum of the Moving Image to assemble the Henson show. That’s when she got into a discussion with Karen Falk, who is the director of archives for The Jim Henson Company.

“We knew that Frank Oz was Jewish and grew up in Oakland,” Rabben notes. “Karen told us about his family’s marionettes and their extraordinary history.” 

Oz told the New York Times that he never aimed to be a puppeteer. Odd, because he was so good at it. The director, actor and performer brought Yoda to life—voicing the diminutive Jedi on camera in the original Star Wars trilogy. Oz, now 78, said he originally set out to be a journalist.

Certainly journalism was part of a puppeteer’s job. In an age of kings and emperors, only puppets could tell the truth; they were political satirists with strings attached.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum’s display includes a video interview Frank did with the elder Oznowicz. Their puppet Hitler was eventually dug up from its hiding place in Belgium, brought back to America and then left to rest in an Oakland attic. 

The museum is putting up a trigger warning, in case this Adolf figure, with his tattered, moldering brown uniform, overwhelms any visitor.

“The exhibition just opened, so we have not yet had anyone react strongly to the marionette,” Rabben said. “Most people would not expect to see a likeness of Hitler in a Jewish museum. … We wanted to give people the choice to enter the space and to learn more about why and how this marionette was created, if they so desire.”

The symbolism of the puppet’s disinterment is unignorable. Recall Bertolt Brecht’s 1941 play The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, a sort of human puppet show about a thinly-veiled Adolf, with its concluding lines: “Don’t yet rejoice in his defeat, you men. Although the world stood up and stopped the bastard, the bitch that bore him is in heat again.”

Oz is for Oznowicz: A Puppet Family's History

Through Nov. 27
The Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St.
(415) 655-7800

Corrections: No Muppets appear in the “Oz is for Oznowicz” exhibit; they appear in “The Jim Henson Exhibition,” also currently showing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Isidore Oznowicz was Jewish, but his wife Frances was not. It is unclear whether the couple ever used the Hitler doll in a public performance. The video interview screening at the exhibit only features Isidore (known as Mike) and does not detail the history of the puppet.